MUMBAI: By the time this is published, Steven Spielberg or Tom Hanks might have won an Oscar for their Cold War drama “Bridge of Spies” (2015). Tom Hanks acts as the New York crime-insurance lawyer James B.Donovan who represented the arrested Soviet spy Rudolf Abel of Brooklyn in a US Federal Court in 1957. In that process Donovan is disdained by his fellow attorneys and ridiculed in public. He gets hate mails and someone fires a gun shot at his house. His plea to the judge not to award harsh sentence to Abel for keeping him as“insurance” in case an American spy is caught in Soviet Union falls on deaf ears. Abel is sentenced to 30 years.

On May 1, 1960 Francis Gary Powers took off his U-2 spy plane from Peshawar. He was shot down while flying over Soviet Union. On August 17, 1960 he was sentenced to 10 years prison for espionage. Soon after this, Soviet Union suggested to the US through the back channel that Abel could be exchanged for Powers with Donovan as the negotiator.

The exchange finally took place on February 10, 1962 over the Glienicker Bridge, which connects East and West Berlin across Lake Wannsee. Donovan who was present throughout this spy swap did not tell his family about his role. They come to know about it only through the TV.

But the real story of Donovan does not end here.

The National Security Archives of the George Washington University have released sensational secret documents on February 26, 2016 exposing Donovan’s key role in 1962 as the secret American negotiator with Cuban ruler Fidel Castro. This was after the disastrous CIA sponsored April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in which 1202 American mercenaries were captured by the Cuban forces.

The documents reveal that Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brother of President John Kennedy, had secretly appointed Donovan to obtain release of these American irregulars. Donovan’s mission was code named “Project Mercy”.

The documents say that “Castro found the first trusted U.S. representative with whom he could seriously discuss how Havana and Washington might move toward restoring civility and normalcy in the dark wake of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis”.

These negotiations started from 1962 Christmas Eve. Donovan also successfully obtained Castro’s permission for the release of nearly 5000 members of the mercenaries’ families. In addition CIA also pressed him to obtain release of their three covert operatives who were detained from 1960 while planting microphones in a building used by the Chinese news service building. While talking to Donovan, Castro expressed a “clear interest in using the prisoner release to open the door on talks for more normal relations”. The documents said that Donovan reported to the White House and the CIA, after a meeting in late January, that Fidel’s top aide had even “broached the subject of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States.“

However US bureaucracy and intelligence services were too ambitious. They expected a lone unknown lawyer to obtain a breakthrough which they could not secure through overt or covert means. Let me quote the documents: “The CIA, State Department and NSC all attempted to influence President Kennedy on the U.S. response to Castro’s interest in a rapprochement. State Department officials suggested that Donovan ‘go for a week-long walk on the beach with Castro’ and establish non-negotiable pre-conditions for talks on better relations: cutting Cuba’s ties with the USSR, and ending Cuban interference in other parts of Latin America.

A CIA memo titled “Instructions for James Donovan” added that Castro “should be persuaded to throw the Communists out of his government. If Castro did not agree to all U.S. demands, the CIA’s proposed instructions stated, Donovan should ‘paint for Castro…the permanently black picture that will prevail—with only one ultimate result—if Cuba continues to make the United States her enemy’.”

Fortunately President Kennedy did not agree to these preposterous suggestions. He told his National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy: “we don’t want to present Castro with a condition that he obviously cannot fulfill. We should start thinking along more flexible lines”. Bundy recorded this in a “Top Secret/Eyes Only” memo on March 4, 1963 that the President was very interested in this policy.

The CIA played a major role in this mission. Director John McCone met Donovan several times. CIA established a Task Force code named “Moses” to provide covert support. However the documents also reveal certain sinister CIA plans which were, fortunately, not approved. One was a “brilliant “ idea by Edward Lansdale, their counter-insurgency specialist (Operation Mangoose) to print Castro’s image on the inside sheets of toilet paper that would be part of the food and pharmaceutical supplies Donovan had offered in return for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners. It seems Lansdale felt that this would bring down Castro’s image among the Cubans who would “really get laughing at Fidel.”

The second was more perverse. A CIA team was trying to utilize Donovan’s special access to Castro to assassinate him. The documents revealed “a plan to have Donovan be the unwitting purveyor of a diving suit and breathing apparatus, respectively contaminated with Madura foot fungus and tuberculosis bacteria, as a gift for Castro”. Fortunately this did not happen although Donovan had in fact gifted a sanitized diving suit for Castro.

In April 1963 Donovan met Castro when he gave the diving suit and a diving watch. “They fished at the Bay of Pigs and Castro gave an on-site explanation of the Bay of Pigs invasion”. Castro then asked him how his relationship with US should progress. According to the transcripts Donovan replied: “Now, do you know how porcupines make love? Well, the answer is, ‘very carefully,’ and that is how you and the U.S. would have to get into this. I think an accommodation of views could be worked out”.

James Donovan died on January 19, 1970. Had he been alive he would have been happy that at last his country was following his advice. The documents end with a message to President Obama who is planning an epoch making visit to Cuba: “More than half a century later, President Obama and President Raul Castro have finally worked out that ‘accommodation of views’.”

(Picture: Lawyer James Donovan who negotiated for the return of the Bay of Pigs Prisoners)

(Vappala Balachandran is a retired senior intelligence officer, and an expert on security affairs)